Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Comic Review -- Manhattan Projects #1: Infinite Oppenheimers / Jonathan Hickman and Nick Pitarra

In many ways, the Manhattan Project represented a very surreal time, where America worked to maintain its dominance by making sure it was able to build the weapon of the day's nightmares, the atomic bomb.  The results and fallout of that undertaking (pun partially intended) make it easy to suppose that WMDs weren't the only sinister thing the U.S. could have been working on, and that a whole gamut of mind-bending and potentially horrifying endeavors were underway.  No evidence has ever truly suggested this, but it's easy to imagine the Manhattan Project creating this image for others to speculate on.

It is this scenario upon which writer Jonathan Hickman and illustrator Nick Pitarra base their story, Manhattan Projects.  Set in a parallel world in which reality bending and artificial intelligence are scientific possibilities with potentially immediate real-world applications, Manhattan Projects tells the story of Robert Oppenheimer's initiation into the Manhattan Projects under General Leslie Groves.  Between his joining the project and his observations of some of the fantastic projects it has underway, we see snippets of his life, told parallel to the development of his supposed twin brother, Joseph, who turns out to be a psychotic, Jeffrey Dahmer-like killer.

No sooner than he agrees to join do things almost immediately go haywire, with an assault upon the project headquarters by the Japanese--through use of an energy gate and a platoon of robotic Kamikaze Killing Machines, intent on decimating their scientists and taking out their intellectual capital.  After helping Groves and the other soldiers defend the base, we find that Oppenheimer has tricked the world into believing he is someone he's not, and the horrifying ramifications of that reveal set the tone for what is to come afterwards.

The concept behind the plot is very creative, and leaves a lot of room for layers upon layers of stories.  I'll give Hickman credit for taking a time and place that making it just different enough from our own world and history that we know it's a kind of science fiction, but infusing it with enough realism that we're not simply taking it for granted.  The outlandish technologies and scenarios encountered in this issue call for an almost Doctor Who-like suspension of disbelief, while other fictitious elements are easier to swallow.  Oppenheimer, for example, never had a twin brother, even though his younger brother Frank was a real part of his life.

The artwork is a good thematic fit for the series.  Nick Pitarra draws in a gritty, thin style that excels in the depiction of up-close moments: big, wide eyes, open mouths, and so forth.  His characters are expressive, and while I find some of the facial gestures to be odd, he does a good job with body types and postures--Oppenheimer, for example, is wire-thin and at times downright gawky while Groves is broad-shouldered, muscular, and a typical cigar-smoking alpha male specimen you'd expect to see in a general's uniform.  There are also plenty of excellent action shots, replete with flying bullets, robotic killer samurai, and falling bodies on both sides.  All in all, it's a bit strange, but again, does wonders for the storytelling at hand.

My biggest issue with this issue is the production, namely, the cover.  I have a pretty light hand when reading comics, and I've gotten a whole lot of smudging on the front and back of this thing, including the title and insignia without even realizing it.  What gives?  I like keeping my comics in good shape, but this issue doesn't even give you a fair shot at doing so!  You'd need to put the thing directly into a bag and board, without reading it, and hope you get a digital version soon so you know what's going on.  Not cool, Image!

Overall, this is an interesting and more than slightly disturbing start to a potentially very interesting series.  I'll be interested to see where it goes.  Fans of alternate histories, science fiction, and possibly the horror genre will want to give this series a look.  Beware the aforementioned cover issues, though, if you're a stickler for collectibility.  With an imaginative and potentially terrifying take on this period of history, and riveting artwork, Manhattan Projects is definitely worth a read.  Highly recommended.

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